Oct 25, 2012

Local Manufacturer of "Green" Product Gives New Life to an Old East Side Warehouse

There was a time in Buffalo when we were producing revolutionary products and ideas that helped fuel the growth of America. The grain elevator by Joseph Dart and the eventual evolution of the building type that would go on to inspire architects of the Modernism movement; the forerunner of the modern day air conditioning system developed by Carrier; the windshield wiper, the pacemaker, more recently, a new cancer vaccine and so much more. Although we have not been able to match the strength of those days in last few decades, we are still producing some revolutionary ideas and inventions.

Modular Radiant Technologies, LLC (MRT) is one example of a Buffalo business in the new century that is creating a unique and revolutionary product. MRT produces a radiant heat product that is far superior to traditional forced air and other radiant heat systems. The product was invented by the company's CEO, Gary Hydock.

MRT is based on the east side at 980 Northampton Street, their product is made from post consumer recycled materials, and the majority of the components required to create their product are sourced locally. They currently have 90 projects under their belt in the seven counties surrounding Buffalo.

In a traditional radiant heating system, the pex tubing is put down and secured and then gypsum concrete is poured over the entire floor plate. The problem with that model includes moisture release into the existing structure (future mold issues), the weight of the wet gypcrete (22 lbs. sq. ft. wet, 15 lbs. sq. ft. dry) and   that if something breaks or needs to be serviced, a jackhammer would be required to remove the gypcrete and repair the problem. The MRT system can be easily serviced if anything goes wrong because of its modularity but so far they have a 0% failure rate. Additionally, the weight of the product Modular Radiant Technologies produces is only 8 pounds per square and requires no structural modification to the building to install it.

When compared to traditional forced air systems, the Modular Radiant system results in better indoor air quality, a higher level of comfort, no dust, and is typically less than half the cost to operate of a forced air system. Now combine that the high efficiency boiler they offer and it's a no brainer to go with their system for a new build or adaptive reuse project. The boiler they offer can operate on nine different energy sources including alternative energy like windmill or solar or geothermal.

The plastic trays that form the base of their panel is made from 100% post consumer recycled plastic that is produced in Holland, NY and was designed by the Buffalo Polymer. The cement comes from Holcim Cement on Route 5 and the Norlite, which is a lightweight aggregate, comes from Albany. The end product often incorporates Styrofoam and carbon activated material as well as other recycled materials which would typically end up in a landfill instead of being recycled and repurposed.

The rehabilitation of the bed and breakfast on Wadsworth that was recently profiled on Buffalo Rising included the MRT product in their design. At the peak of the winter season, the owner had a gas bill of about $1100 a month, which on average floated around $650. After installing the radiant heat system by MRT, the average monthly bills dropped to $288.

Hopefully we will begin to see more projects incorporating green technologies such as this. In Europe, 87% of their building stock is heated with a radiant heat system, but less than 3% of all buildings in America utilize the system. We rely on traditional forced air more often than not. Using the MRT products means a better indoor environment, utilities savings, and supporting a local company that sources much of their components from other local and New York State companies.

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Oct 11, 2012

Green Streets Mean Both, Environmental and Aesthetic Benefits

Buffalo has been really turning a corner in the last few years about better street design and 21st century infrastructure improvements. We’ve got the Green Code in the works, new projects announced practically every week, and downtown finally seems to be gaining some momentum. Whether a historic structure comes back online or a streetscape gets a long needed overhaul, now is an exciting time for Buffalo.

Rain Gardens completed on Parkdale Avenue. Image courtesy of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper
Unfortunately, infrastructure improvements have been falling behind the pace of redevelopment, until this summer. The City has been quite busy with repaving projects like on Main Street, Elmwood Avenue, and several residential streets. While that’s all well and good, the infrastructure improvements at the pedestrian level are still largely behind in comparison.

Elmwood Avenue Bioretention planters under construction
That’s why I was so excited when I saw the new bioretention planters being built on Elmwood Avenue between Forest and Bird. Some people may be familiar with this type of design if you have been on Old Fall Street in downtown Niagara Falls in the last few years.

After the winter garden building was demolished, Old Fall Street was redone to include these bioretention/rain garden features, which add a really nice touch to the streetscape. Image courtesy of Google Maps
This project is happening on six, west side streets in Buffalo and each street is getting some a little different. Elmwood Avenue is the only one getting the biorentiton planters. Claremont and Claredon are both receiving new pervious pavement, Parkdale and Windsor are getting rain garden inlets, and Granger Place is having a stormwater treatment structure installed.

The Buffalo Sewer Authority is working in collaboration with Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper to implement these new projects, within a combined sewer overflow sewershed. The runoff water ends up in the Scajaquada Creek. "On really rainy days, the stormwater will overwhelm the wastewater treatment system" explained Jessie Fisher at Riverkeeper. "However, it is not just the stormwater that overflows into our area waterways under these circumstances, which would obviously be bad enough given the contaminants involved. Since we have a combined system, the stormwater mixes with our raw, untreated sewage and both the stormwater as well as the sewage waste overflow into our local waterways." 

Jessie went on to explain that, "The original solution for this problem was to separate the stormwater into separate pipes and just pipe it directly (contaminants and all) into local waterways.  What the new solution does is to keep the stormwater out of the pipes in the first place so that it can recharge our groundwater and so that all of the sewage waste can make its way to the treatment plant where it belongs."

Rain gardens installed and planted on Windsor in addition to the pervious pavement. Image courtesy of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper
These “green streets” elements go a long way in minimizing overflow into our waterways and aid in the revitalization of streets. It also looks exponentially better than the typical blank, stamped concrete that it replaces.

Check out this link  to see the current projects underway or that have been recently completed. Also be sure to look at the presentation board for rain gardens on Parkdale to get a better understanding of how they work.

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Oct 10, 2012

Cheektowaga's New Super Walmart: Good News for Buffalo, Bad News for the Region

You're probably asking yourself how anyone could possibly fathom that Cheektowaga's new Super Walmart on Walden Avenue will be good for the City of Buffalo. In the spirit of making you a believer, let's review the basics of a typical Walmart. Disposable and unidentifiable architecture, purely suburban design, a parking lot often exponentially larger than the store, and often a detriment to small, locally owned businesses.

The parking lot never fills up at the new Sheridan store or any of them, with the exception of Christmas shoppers.
Image courtesy of Google Maps
There has been a lot of debate whether or not Walmart is actually good or bad when it comes to town, but that's a larger discussion for another time. I'd like to focus on the long-term impacts of their unsustainable model in Western New York.

When the Sheridan Drive Super Walmart opened and replaced the Walmart on Niagara Falls Boulevard, rumor has it that the company intentionally left it vacant. The underlying thought is to avoid any competition from similar stores, even if it means another dead plaza in the suburbs. The same thing is likely to happen in Lockport on Transit Road when their new Super Walmart opens. I'd be willing to bet that the Cheektowaga at the former Thruway Mall is in store for pretty much the same.

The former location on Niagara Fall Boulevard is now a half dead, massive plaza
Image courtesy of Google Maps
However, the BN article mentions that Benderson Development will be searching for a new tenant for the "soon to be old" Walmart further down Walden Avenue, so there may still be hope. Additionally, residents have been complaining for quite some time about conditions of the Super Flea and the "criminal activity" problems. The hope is that the new use of the site will reduce crime, but that doesn't seem likely given the precedent set by the other stores.

Since the new Super Walmart has opened on Sheridan, Amherst Police have been on site regularly to deal with criminal activity and unruly patrons. Although Walmart is replacing Super Flea, it will likely not be able to alter the patterns of crime and other associated issues if the Sheridan Drive store is any proof.

So why is all this good news for Buffalo? Simple, because it isn't happening in the city. Cheektowaga is losing an interesting and unique attraction and replacing it with something that can be found in "Anywhere, America." The Super Flea may not be the prettiest place, but it's a fun place to spend a weekend afternoon hunting for rare or interesting items.

Even better for Buffalo, the Peddler Market in the city has the same spirit of the Super Flea, but in an urban setting. It's not hard to imagine that those who enjoy visiting and spending money at the Super Flea may now be coming into Buffalo after Super Walmart comes to Walden Avenue.

Every poor decision the suburbs make about their built environment, the better Buffalo looks. We have unique destinations, attractions, history, and landscapes that the burbs cannot replicate. Each time one of the few, interesting attractions disappears for something that can be found just about anywhere, Buffalo reestablishes itself as the more interesting alternative. The current generation has been flocking back to cities to escape the endless sea of parking lots and uninteresting places that are typical of America's suburbs.

Walmart is capable of designing a semi-decent urban building. It's unlikely they would ever do something this "nice" in Western New York. This mixed use building is planned for Washington, D.C.
It's not all good news though.  This type of development hurts us all as a region. No one is really thinking or discussing the long-term consequences of having dozens of dead plazas throughout the area. What the region is going to be left with in a few years are miles upon miles of asphalt parking lots and more empty stores.

Walden Avenue is one of the worst offenders. It's nearly impossible to find a single building between Harlem and Cayuga that doesn't have parking in front of it or a building that isn't set back significantly from the street. I often wonder why they even bothered spending the money on sidewalks. It's Urban Planning 101 to have a mix of uses in an urban setting with buildings "built to the curb" in order to create an interesting and lively streetscape.

Unfortunately, Buffalo also suffers from poor design choices modeled after suburban principles. Look no further than the newer builds on Delaware Avenue by Kenmore. These buildings mediocre architecturally and the site plan is purely suburban; parking in the front with buildings significantly set back from the sidewalk. It's quite the contrast looking further down Delaware in Kenmore, where most of the buildings were designed with the pedestrian in mind rather than the car. The good news here is that there is less of it to "fix" in the city than there is in the suburbs.

This small plaza on Delaware Avenue by Kenmore presents another lost opportunity in Buffalo to create an interesting, walkable, pedestrian-friendly streetscape. It was as simple as locating the buildings at the sidewalk and moving parking to the rear. 
Like many problems in our built environment, it's possible to fix the poor design of the suburban commercial corridors, but the price tag would be enormous. Just imagine how much it would cost to rebuild everything along Walden to be pedestrian friendly with parking in the rear, a road diet for the street, and architecture that actually means something. It's much easier and much more gratifying to fix up the city than to rebuild the suburbs with a better design. What we have now in Buffalo, no matter what the condition, is typically better built and more interesting than anything being built along commercial corridors in the suburbs.

This is Delaware Avenue just a few blocks from the previous picture, in the Village of Kenmore. This is how cities and urban areas were built and should continue with this model. You can walk right off the sidewalk into a store without the risk of walking through a parking lot. The greatly improved aesthetics are also a great bonus.

I'll leave you with one final thought on the subject to reflect upon or discuss. During my time at UB, several professors consistently told me that no one cares about architecture anymore. I bought it; it made sense. Look at the majority of what's built today compared to that of 50+ years ago.

Since graduating, I've decided on a new line of thinking, people don't care about architecture because most of what we build today doesn't deserve to be cared about. Every time one of these characterless, fake, disposable structures are built and labeled architecture, it only further reinforces that statement. Architecture is, and has been, a field in crisis and buildings like this only make it worse.

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Oct 3, 2012

Cornell Students Get Back to Their Roots at the Hotel Statler

A group of very impressive Cornell students toured the Statler over weekend to get back to the roots of their school. The students came from the School of Hotel Administration, which Ellsworth Statler was heavily involved in during his final years. Statler originally believed that the hospitality profession did not require formal training in an institutional setting. Instead, people should have to rise through the ranks just as he did to become successful.


His mindset completely changed after he attended the 2nd Annual Conference at Cornell. Statler spoke as the Guest of Honor at the conference and simply stated, "I'm converted. Meek can have any damn thing he wants." Howard Meek was the dean of the school at that time and was probably ecstatic to hear someone like E.M. Statler essentially say he would write him a blank check.

Croce and the students take in the View of Buffalo 18 stories up
The Hotel Ezra Cornell conference is currently in its 87th year and put on entirely by students in the Hotel Administration program. The goal of the conference is for students to showcase their skills and new innovations in the industry for top leaders in the hospitality world. Although Statler died shortly after his introduction to the school, his wife, Alice carried on with his legacy to help support the school.

Mark Croce and Robert Knoer gave the students a brief introduction to the Hotel Statler followed by a walk over to the Curtiss Building and the C.W. Miller Livery on Huron and Franklin. Both buildings are listed on the National Register and Croce has some big plans currently in the works for the pair. Following our short downtown tour, we went up to the roof and took in the incredible view. I was lucky enough to get on the roof earlier in the day and got some fantastic photos, which can be seen here. Additional photos of the students on their walkthrough of the building and downtown can also be seen here.

The buildings in the foreground on the left are both slated for rehabilitation by Croce
Students introduced themselves during breakfast and each was more impressive than the last. One student was pursuing his degree so he could go on to study and become a French wine scholar. Another student was on scholarship granted to her by the King of Thailand. Introductions continued in this fashion until getting to a junior in the program who is playing a crucial role in organizing the upcoming 88th conference.

Chad Wemischner is managing director for the conference and explained, "The real purpose of coming to the Hotel Statler is to expose students to this historic Buffalo landmark." The students were only in Buffalo for about a day, but seemed to be rather impressed with what the Queen City had to offer. It was great to see people with this level of professionalism and experience taking in Buffalo and liking what they saw.


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